The Delius divide: a vital visionary or a meandering musical waste of time?

Frederick Delius.
Frederick Delius.
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Next weekend marks the 150th anniversary of Frederick Delius’s birth. Chris Bond looks back at the life of the Yorkshire-born composer.

There are few composers who divide opinion quite like Frederick Delius. To his fans he was a visionary, the musical equivalent of an impressionist artist who painted wonderful pictures through sound, while his detractors find his music dull and meandering with little to distinguish between the individual pieces.

It’s a debate that is likely to intensify in the coming weeks and months as events are held across the world to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth. Although he hails from Yorkshire, Delius was an international composer who lived and worked in Germany, France, Norway and Florida, and his anniversary year is being marked by special concerts in places like St Petersburg, Karlsruhe and Paris.

Britain, too, is celebrating one of its own. Next Sunday, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Julian Lloyd Webber will perform works by Delius at the Royal Festival Hall, and in October, Chetham’s School of Music is holding A Delius Celebration with concerts in Manchester and St George’s Hall, in Bradford.

Delius is best known for works such as On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and The Walk to the Paradise Garden, but his output stretches far beyond pastoral music and includes a wealth of compositions including concertos, operas, chamber works, symphonic poems and dances, as well as a Mass and a Requiem. Dr Lionel Carley is president of The Delius Society and has written six books about the composer and has his feet firmly planted in the pro-Delius camp.

“People who like Delius are particularly fervent in their affection for his music. It has a wonderful harmonic development and, like many great composers, you can distinguish a Delius piece the moment you hear it,” he says.

Despite such enthusiasm he feels Delius has slipped off the radar in recent times. “If you take his operas they are performed much more often in German-speaking countries than they are in England. His music used to be on the radio all the time but in the last 30 years people have had much less chance to listen to it, so this anniversary gives us the opportunity to put him much more on the map than he has been recently.”

Delius is sometimes regarded more of a European than an English composer because his parents were German and he lived in France for much of his life, even though he was actually born in Bradford and spent his early working life employed at his father’s wool business.

He came from a well-to-do family that lived in the Little Germany area of the city – the church where they once worshipped is now the Delius Art Centre – and spent the first 22 years of his life in West Yorkshire. But Dr Carley says it was the countryside rather than the city that inspired the young musician.

“The moors meant a great deal to him, if you listen to North Country Sketches it is essentially the feelings evoked by the moors. It’s not a picture but you really do get an atmospheric feel of the moors and this set the tone for his music, which is shot through with strong feelings for nature. A great deal has been written about Delius over the years but the enduring image fixed in the minds of many people is that of the blind and cantankerous old man depicted in Ken Russell’s highly-acclaimed film Song of Summer.

But film-maker John Bridcut, who has been commissioned by BBC 4 to produce a new film about Delius, believes his earlier years have been overlooked.

“Great as Ken Russell’s film is it shows Delius when he was blind and paralysed and by that time he had become old and bitter. He certainly wasn’t the vital and energetic man of his youth and you don’t get much clue as to the man he was at his peak,” says Bridcut, whose film is due to be screened later this year.

Bridcut is intrigued by the composer’s early years in Yorkshire. “Delius came from a cultured family, but he wasn’t close to his parents. His father wanted him to work in the family’s wool business which he did for a short while, although he didn’t achieve anything. Delius’s father was quite musical himself but he was disappointed that his son became a composer and apparently never heard a note of his music to the day he died because he felt he should have worked for the family business.”

Despite this his northern roots stayed with him. “He followed cricket and although there aren’t any recordings of his voice it was said that he spoke with a Yorkshire accent even after living in France for years. After he left Bradford he still retained a fondness for Yorkshire and was later given the freedom of the city.”

Delius left Bradford in 1884 and travelled to America and although he visited his hometown in the future he never lived there again. This could have marked the end of his Yorkshire links but it didn’t. In the late 1920s, a young organist called Eric Fenby from Scarborough wrote to Delius at his home in Grez, in France, after hearing the composer was blind and crippled (he was diagnosed with syphilis in 1910) and unable to write down the music in his head.

He was shocked when he received an invitation from the great man to live with him and work as his assistant but he accepted the offer and together they devised a tortuous dictation system to transcribe the musical compositions over the next five years until the composer’s death in 1934.

Fenby, who died in 1997 at the age of 90, went on to become Professor of Harmony at the Royal Academy of Music and was artistic director of the Delius Centenary Festival in 1962. Now, as we reach another anniversary Delius’s life and work are once again in the spotlight.

“Delius was one of the greatest British composers of the 20th-century and what’s intriguing about him is people either love or hate his music. It’s a bit like Marmite, his music gets an immediate reaction,” says Bridcut. “What he was most interested in was how to make the sound beautiful through the distribution of notes between different instruments, he delighted in the sheer pleasure of sound.”

Delius was an influential cultural figure in the first part of the century and formed friendships with fellow composers like Edward Grieg and Percy Grainger as well as writers and artists like Henrik Ibsen, Paul Gauguin and Edvard Munch. He himself had been influenced by Debussy and Wagner but created his own unique soundscapes.

Not that he was interested in being a crowd pleasing composer. “He will be always be something of a special case,” says Bridcut. “I don’t think he’ll ever be like Elgar who has a widespread following right across the board. Delius never wrote something like Land of Hope and Glory, he was much more interested in harmony and colour and effect.”

Nevertheless, he was capable of crossing musical boundaries and drew inspiration from everything from the slave songs he heard in the American south, to the sound of birds in his garden at Grez, and his music has influenced composers and musicians as diverse as Bela Bartok, Duke Ellington and Kate Bush.

“He was writing jazz music a generation before the jazz musicians of the 1920s and 30s. He was also writing film music before anyone was writing music for films and you can hear his influence in the film scores of people John Williams and Bernard Hermann. There was a refinement to the music of Delius and his influence and importance have stood the test of time.”


January 29: Birthday lunchtime gathering at the Royal Festival Hall, London, with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Julian Lloyd Webber performing his works.

May 5-8: Festival Delius in Paris and Grez.

June 22: Delius’s Cello Sonata at Bradford Cathedral.

July 25-27: Three Choirs Festival, Hereford, includes performances of the Cello Concerto and Sea Drift.

September 22-23: Study Weekend at The British Library, London.

October 17-20. A Delius Celebration at Chetham’s School of Music with concerts in Manchester and Bradford.